I looked at the defense’s performance against the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday. Now, I want to review my biggest takeaways after studying the offense in Sunday’s loss.
First off, it’s important not to undersell the impact of losing three of your top four or five pass targets by the end of the second series. The team spends an entire week constructing a game plan, with different plays designed to be executed from particular personnel groupings on a situational basis.
What does that mean?
Well, imagine you putting together plays for your third-down game plan to attack Atlanta’s top coverage. You’re the coaching staff, and you have a pass play that will work great on the whiteboard against the coverage, and from a specific personnel grouping you really like the matchup you’re likely to get down the field with someone like Dallas Goedert on a linebacker, or a slot corner on DeSean Jackson (take this play, for example).
The moment you lose multiple players, concepts like that are lost. The plays themselves might work, but you have to mix and match your personnel groupings to try and find the matchups that work. You may have to move Nelson Agholor to the spot where you previously had Jackson for one concept, but then move Mack Hollins into his spot for another. You may want Zach Ertz running a route you have for Goedert on one play, but slide J.J. Arcega-Whiteside into his spot for another. Some groupings are completely thrown out the window, and the Eagles had to do this on the fly while coaching a game against a fast, tough, desperate defense. It’s not an excuse, obviously, but it’s a look into the tall task the staff faced on Sunday night.
Now, let’s get to the play on the field. Carson Wentz didn’t have a great start to the game. There are throws I’m sure he would love to have back that were a bit off target as he worked on his timing with the cadre of new pass targets. He bounced back in the second half, however, and put the offense on his back, nearly willing the team to victory. It was a very courageous performance, especially considering the amount of hits he took. Atlanta’s defensive front, which we profiled last week before the game, was as good as advertised. Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley each had strong games up front and were extremely disruptive. Atlanta also turned up the heat on Wentz, relying on a number of blitzes to get after the quarterback on Sunday night.
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This is just one play, but it was a really good microcosm of some of the things the Falcons did from a pressure standpoint. The Falcons show a pressure look from the offense’s left side before the snap, and the Eagles respond accordingly by sliding their protection that way. Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo, and Jason Peters are responsible for the three direct threats on that side (Deion Jones, Adrian Clayborn, and McKinley). Darren Sproles is keying off the fourth threat, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. On the right side, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson will account for those two defensive linemen in man protection.
But the Falcons aren’t sending a blitz from the left, it’s actually coming from the right.
Jones drops back as he’s in man coverage against Sproles. Campbell drops back as well. The safeties in the secondary rotate. Keanu Neal moves to the post from the line of scrimmage, where he could have been a potential blitzer, while Ricardo Allen rotates to the slot, out of the frame on the right side. This allows the nickel corner, Damontae Kazee, to blitz off that edge. There is no one to account for Kazee with the protection call in place.
This is where Sproles’ veteran savvy comes into play because as soon as he sees Campbell drop back in coverage, he gets his eyes to the opposite side, expecting pressure. He peeks into the A gap first, but sees that Brooks has that covered, before sliding outside to pick up the slot corner, Kazee. Sproles saves Wentz from a big hit with his block. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about Jones -- who "green dogs" on this play. A green dog blitz is when a man coverage defender, who typically accounts for a running back or a tight end, decides to become a blitzer once his man stays in to block. Sproles is not a pass catching threat when he’s in protection, so Jones inserts himself into the blitz, takes off for Wentz, and explodes into the quarterback after the throw to help force an interception.
This was a great blitz call by the Falcons and head coach Dan Quinn. Sometimes that happens. The Eagles were fooled pre-snap, recovered, and actually picked up the blitz, but were still forced into a negative play on third-and-long thanks to an explosive athlete on the other side. Tip of the cap to the Falcons on this play.
As the night went on, and Wentz and the rest of the offense got to be more in sync, the Eagles did a much better job of handling the Falcons' blitz package (including plays where the threat of pressure was present before the snap, like on the second play above).
The ball came out quick, the receivers were on the same page as Wentz, and the offense kept moving. Again, the four-man rush for Atlanta was very effective. The Falcons were able to get home and collapse the pocket against the Eagles, which had a huge impact on the game, but the Eagles did a nice job of handling the pressure looks as the game went on.
I thought Wentz put the team on his back in the second half. He navigated pressure, was on target with his passes, stood tall in muddy pockets, and made some herculean plays in tight moments on third- and fourth-down plays.
On a play that gave the offense life, the Eagles converted a fourth-down conversion inside the 5-yard line, and I thought Wentz did a great job of not forcing anything here in such a stressful spot.
Many quarterbacks may just force the issue there, or break the pocket after that initial read and try to run for the first down, but Wentz stayed alive, kept his eyes downfield, and found Agholor in the back of the end zone for the score.
I want to give credit to Agholor on this play as well. The Eagles run this play so often in these short-yardage situations and it almost always goes as planned. He easily could have jogged through this route and taken his time, assuming the ball would go elsewhere. Instead, not only does he carry out his route, but he plays off the coverage from the Falcons, feeling a defender underneath him in a trail technique. That’s why he throws that little juke at the top of his route, to throw that defender off in case he was being double-teamed, before he worked back into the vision of the quarterback. Great job by Agholor here.
Later, the Eagles run the same exact play on their two-point conversion attempt after Wentz’s touchdown run on the quarterback sneak. This time, the Falcons are not gameplanning to take that throw away, and the concept goes as planned for a successful conversion to put the Eagles ahead. Well designed and well executed by the offense.
Let’s get back to Agholor. I understand that the drop on the final drive was a tough pill to swallow, and he owned it after the game. He knows that’s a play that he has to make. Rather than dwell on it and go in the tank, though, he stays in the game and makes an outstanding catch down the field on fourth-and-a-mile to keep the Eagles alive.
It would have been easy for Agholor to mail it in after that drop. But he stayed locked in and came up with a huge play when the Eagles needed it most. This was a small example of how the Eagles fought in this game. It was a rough start, but they battled through it, put themselves in position to win the game in the end, and came inches away from coming away with the W. You’re not going to go 16-0 in this league. You’re going to suffer a loss here and there. There are no moral victories in the NFL, but there were plenty of positives to take away from this game if you’re an Eagles fan, and the team’s fight is at the top of the list.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.